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Thursday, May 8, 2003 02:20 pm

Mayor Davlin’s right-hand woman

Three months ago, Letitia Dewith-Anderson couldn’t get her phone call returned by Davlin’s campaign. Now she’s his chief of staff.

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The revolution is manifest in the decor of the spacious corner office overlooking Monroe Street. The centerpiece is a rocking chair on a colorful rug. The credenza holds a handmade pottery tea service. A trio of colorful papier mache birds perches on the window sill. And the bookshelf brims with volumes by Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, and Malcolm X.

Right away, you know: Letitia Dewith-Anderson is not your typical Springfield bureaucrat.

As recently as February, she was essentially a housewife, spending her time repainting every room in her house, volunteering at her kids' schools, and writing her family's memoirs. One day she saw a TV commercial for Tim Davlin, then one of five candidates for mayor. She called his headquarters hoping to volunteer, and no one bothered to return her call.

Yet here she is, less than three months later, occupying a big office in the same suite as Davlin, the new mayor. Dewith-Anderson is his newly appointed chief of staff.

Who is this woman and how did she make the large leap from housewife to the mayor's inner circle? If you think the answer involves "affirmative action" or tokenism, you obviously haven't met Dewith-Anderson.

"I don't do window-dressing," she says. "Too many of my people have had to do it--too many women, too many blacks. . . . I'm not doing it. I will never be a token for anyone."

* * *

In a 1988 essay called "White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account," Wellesley College professor Peggy McIntosh lists 26 advantages white Americans unconsciously enjoy. For example, number four on the list is: "I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed." The next item: "I can turn on the television or open to the paper and see people of my race widely represented."

Number 22 on the list: "I can take a job . . . without having coworkers suspect that I got it because of race."

As arguably the highest-ranking African-American in the history of the City of Springfield, it's inevitable that some people will assume Dewith-Anderson was chosen to help a mayor leading a city with a painfully racist past.

The truth, however, is that Dewith-Anderson, 41, is better educated than both her boss and her predecessor, Mayor Karen Hasara's chief of staff, Brian McFadden. She has a degree in economics from Spelman College and graduated from Loyola University School of Law. Her resume includes positions with some of the most powerful Democrats in the state, including Speaker of the House Michael Madigan (she met her husband, Bill Anderson, while they were both working for Madigan in the 1980s) and attorneys general Roland Burris and Neil Hartigan. And until she decided to "retire" a couple of years ago, she was a successful contract lobbyist, with such clients as the Illinois Government Finance Officers Association and the South Suburban Mayors and Managers Conference.

In her spare time, she served on a laundry list of boards and committees, including the League of Women Voters, the ACLU, United Way, Illinois Women in Government, Central Illinois Democratic Women, and Frontiers International.

So the real question is not whether she is qualified--it's what the heck was she doing impersonating a housewife?

"I was told to be still," she says. "God told me. I just felt it."

Her version of being "still" included chairing the "market day" committee at Grant Middle School, where her 11-year-old daughter, Allison, is in the gifted program; chairing the "after-prom" committee at Springfield High School, where her 18-year-old son, Taylor, is a graduating senior; and co-chairing the Denim & Diamonds benefit for Southern Illinois University's Breast Center. It included writing the first draft of a book, joining a co-ed indoor soccer team, refinishing furniture, painting the studios of the music school where Allison takes piano, and applying fancy faux finishes to virtually every wall of the family's home.

"In the office, she painted it with some kind of glaze, and then came back over it with a garbage bag, and then peeled it off," her husband says. "She read about it somewhere and just had to try it. It looks like crumpled leather on the walls. She did the whole office like that."

Taylor puts it more succinctly: "She was just running amok."

Then one day, she saw an ad for Tim Davlin. In the closing shot, the candidate was surrounded by relatives. To his left was a bald guy who looked familiar to Dewith-Anderson: it was Mark O'Brien, floor manager for the House Democrats for more than 30 years. O'Brien is actually Davlin's double first cousin ("Mom's brother married dad's sister," Davlin says). Dewith-Anderson had never met Davlin, but she had been friends with O'Brien for decades. The connection was enough to inspire her to call the Davlin campaign and leave a message offering to work as a volunteer. No one called her back.

"I guess we were just a little discombobulated back then," Davlin says.

Sometime later O'Brien noticed her name on a polling list and left a message at her home. She called him back, they talked, and she decided to join the campaign.

"At first, I thought I would just go volunteer, but I'm also a workaholic so me just volunteering to put in a few hours never works," Dewith-Anderson says. "I ended up being there every day, every hour, and I saw where there were holes. They let me be my bossy self. I started traveling with Tim, getting him into the places that we all agreed he needed to be in."

Many of those places, O'Brien says, were in the black community. "Tim needed help on the East Side. Letitia took him everywhere, to every church on the East Side. She introduced him all around."

Dewith-Anderson, who grew up on the West Side, clarifies that she took Davlin all over town. "And there were so many people who helped him on the East Side, it wasn't just me," she says.

Davlin also recognized Dewith-Anderson as someone who offered a fresh viewpoint on critical issues. He included her on his steering committee, a group of eight or nine advisors he refuses to name, other than to say they were "the smartest minds in the state of Illinois." Even in that company, Dewith-Anderson stood out.

"We would get together to discuss something and we'd go around the table and, generally, the first few people would all agree with each other. Then she would say, 'You need to look at this differently. . . . ' She just always had a different perspective," Davlin says.

Dewith-Anderson was impressed with Davlin's willingness to consider her opinion.

"When I met Tim and started asking him questions, the things that we didn't agree on--which I can't remember exactly what they were--he was willing to listen to what I had to say," she says. "He's a man, he's white, but he listened to me and he was genuinely interested."

The day after the election, Davlin says, he started considering three people for chief of staff. He won't name the other two--"I wouldn't dare! I don't know that they really knew," he says--but by inauguration day he had selected Dewith-Anderson.

She had her own test for him. Without going into detail, she says she quizzed him on his stance about the police department, education, and economic development on the East Side.

"I just said there are certain things that matter to me. And if we're not going to meet on those certain issues, then I don't need to be your chief of staff. After being a lobbyist for so long, that's one of the reasons I didn't want to do it anymore," she says. "I have got to be true to myself. I don't have a problem walking away from things I don't believe in."

* * *

In person, Dewith-Anderson is surprisingly tiny. She claims to be a full inch over five feet tall, but that's probably true only when she's wearing her rollerblades. She's also seemingly unguarded, constantly reaching across her desk to turn off a reporter's tape recorder--not because she has something to say that's off-the-record, but to give parenting advice or tips on the Springfield school system. She is either a genuinely warm person or she has mastered the art of pretending to be a genuinely warm person.

"I'll let you figure that out for yourself," says Rudy Davenport, president of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "But I'll say this: If she's faking it, she's been doing it all her life."

Dewith-Anderson grew up in Springfield, the fourth of six children born to William and Juanita Dewith. The couple divorced shortly after Letitia started grade school, and her mom took the kids to live in their grandmother's apartment building on East Washington for about a year. That's when Dewith-Anderson started publishing her own newspaper.

"I would go around sneaking and listening to the neighbors and my sisters, then I would write various articles and charge people 25 cents for this newspaper. And along with the facts, it had all this gossip," she recalls. "Then one day, my older sisters cornered me and told me my newspaper was terminated or else."

Her baby sister, Shannon Dewith McCormick, remembers Letitia writing and illustrating her own books, leading the neighborhood kids on hikes, teaching them to write poetry and sing songs, and taking them on visits to the neighborhood nursing home.

"She was always very creative, very artistic, and very bossy," McCormick says, "but always for a good cause."

Dewith-Anderson credits now-closed City Day School with nurturing her love for reading and creative writing. "Sometimes we would just go across the street to Washington Park and sit there and just write. Oh, I loved that," she says.

When she was 16, her mother married Kenneth Barton Sr., a well-known jazz pianist who was also a CPA. Barton served for 30 years as treasurer of the state NAACP, and he founded a local committee of the United Negro College Fund. He participated in the 1987 voting rights case that gave Springfield its aldermanic council system. Dewith-Anderson referred to him as either "Senior" or "dad," but never as her stepfather. "We don't say things like that. I was blessed to have two dads," she says.

The parents had high expectations, and all the kids became achievers and civic activists. Letitia's brother Enyo became the first black firefighter in Rock Island. Her sister Jai owns a martial arts studio and fitness center in Chicago. McCormick is an attorney in Philadelphia, now doing pro bono work for the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition after working for Chicago Mayor Richard Daley as deputy commissioner in the human services department.

Dewith-Anderson earned her law degree while working as a lobbyist, commuting--incredibly--almost ever day between Springfield and Chicago. Her son Taylor, then in middle school, attended enough classes with her that he once approached a Loyola Law School professor to offer his own suggestions after a mock trial.

But when Dewith-Anderson took the bar exam, she failed by a point. Her law school dean compared her answers on the two questions she missed to the "model answers" and concluded she had just overwritten.

"And the one question I knew I didn't answer correctly, they counted it right!" Dewith-Anderson says. She lost faith in the system and hasn't taken the bar exam again. At least not yet. It's still a possibility.

For now, though, she is happy being chief of staff--a job with no official description. "That's why I like it," she says. "I don't like to do anything routine. Every day when you walk in, it's something different."

Bill Anderson sees his wife spending 12 or more hours a day downtown and realizes she may have found her niche. "I knew there was something she was waiting for," he says, "and I think this was it."

* * *

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